Afghanistan: The Road Ahead

American claims to have learnt from the mistakes of Vietnam, but has it learnt from Iraq or its previous involvement in Afghanistan? As the Northern Alliance drives the Taliban back to Kandahar, America should consider whether the war on terrorism could better be served by building a strong and stable new Goverment in Kabul.


Although America's actions in the month following the 11th of September terrorist attacks were on the whole measured, comprehensive and appropriate, one crucial error was the failure to negotiate a stable future for Afghanistan before military action began. Had a Loya Jirga been called earlier, as King Mohammed Zaher Shah and others had attempted to arrange,1 or if each faction had been assured of representation in the Legislature following the fall of the Taliban, there would have been less chance of unneccessary bloodshed and political imbalances after the inevitable defeat of the Taliban. 1 See Loya Jirga homepage for details of the three 'processes'.
America has been short sighted in subordinating the goal of long-term political stability to the goal of the annihilation of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist networks. The administration claimed to have learnt its lessons from Vietnam, but has it learnt its lessons from Afghanistan? By indiscriminately supporting various factions or individuals associated with the Mujahideen in the 1980s then leaving the country the moment the Soviets withdrew, locked in civil war and awash with arms, the West allowed individuals such as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar (a confidant of bin Laden and a declared friend of the Taliban) to attain undue influence. By irresponsibly leaving unfinished the job they had started, the Americans left the door open for the growth of terrorism and war, then criticised Russia for retailiating against bin Laden-backed Chechen attacks.2 In fact, the same can be said for Iraq. By failing to directly topple Saddam Hussein and assure a transition to a more stable government, they bet on an uprising which has still not eventuated, and have been camped in Saudi Arabia ever since. This very issue is probably the greatest source of recruits for bin Laden and his colleagues, and the central issue in his condemnation of the US - the presence of the Infidel in Saudi Arabia, the location of two of the great holy sites of Islam.

This is not to say, as many of the "We can stop the Vietnam War" baby-boomers and their acolytes have, that the sitation is America's fault. The idea that America somehow deserved the deaths of thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre is morally repulsive as it would be for the Americans to indiscriminately bomb civilians in Afghanistan in 'revenge'. Of course, America has never indisciminately bombed Afghan civilians - but that didn't stop the left from passionately condemning such activity in advance. The point here is that America went into these countries fixed on a narrow primary objective, and should have had the ability to ameliorate or eliminate the long term causes of these problems (respectively Saddam Hussein and the lack of an Afghan political solution), but they failed to do so. If anything, America is guilty of policy laziness in these areas.
2 For example, a 1994 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Seeds of Terror, demonstrates the links between Sudanese fundamentalists and US-funded Afghan fundamentalists such as Hikmatyar, and also reveals that the FBI covered up its knowledge of the involvement of the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI) in Sikh terrorist attacks against India, including the downing of an Indian passenger airliner.
Washington's purported surprise at the Northern Alliance's rapid advance on Kabul rang hollow. The whole point of knocking out Mazar-i-Sharif was to obtain access to Kabul and Herat. For days, American military commanders said they were surprised how long the Taliban were taking to collapse, and the Northern Alliance repeatedly requested, and was granted, intensified bombing of Taliban positions by US bombers. Obviously, the Taliban threw everything they had into Mazar-i-Sharif, and when they could no longer hold it, they fell back rapidly. Washington absurdly demanded that the Alliance should stop at the gates of Kabul, however at the same time reports from the front line repeatedly confirmed that the Northern Alliance was advancing under US air support. The Northern Alliance agreed that they would stop at the gates unless a vaccuum developed in Kabul, and when the Taliban fled, the Alliance waltzed in, leaving enough troops to claim the city for Rabani. That a legitimate power replaced the Taliban in Kabul was not apparently a high priority for Washington.
A police force without legitimacy is no different to warlord rule; in the absence of endorsement by a Loya Jirga, the Northern Alliance security forces in Kabul will inevitably be perceived as just another armed force by at least some residents. To their credit, the Northern Alliance has called for a UN presence - it's a shame they need to.
The solution
to the
Afghan society is a mosaic, bereft of any demographic unity around which to build a fully modern Nation-State. The ethnolinguistic identities of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazari are each large enough to render illegitimate any government which excludes even one of them. None of the four groups is large enough to form a 'default' identity, in the way that he Anglo identity is the 'default' for the Australian and American nations, or the Spanish language predominates in many Latin American countries. By most current estimates the largest group, the Pashtuns, don't come close to constituting a majority at 38% of the population compared with 25% Tajik, 19% Hazara and 9% Uzbek.3 As for religious identity, another schism is found. Even now that the non-Muslim minorities have been expelled from the country, religion is in no way a unifying force. The approximately 14% Shi'ite population is an obvious stumbling block, but the Sunni muslims are also divided between fundamentalist Wahabi Islamists, pluralistic Islamists, supporters of secular modernism, and so on. The most powerful basis for loyalty in Afghanistan is neither ethnolinguistic nationalism nor religious doctrine, but tribal authority. An look at the role of this tribal authority in the pre-1973 political and social structure leads one directly to a solution to the problem of Afghan unity. 3 All statistics derived from SBS World Guide 9th Edition, which was apparently compiled before most remaining Jews, Hindus and Sikhs left the country.
The tribes
and the
Each Afghan tribe has a Jirga (council) from which is chosen a local Chief, the choice being grounded in a number of factors (charisma, seniority, wealth, competence, religious status, powerful ancestors and so on). This hierarchical pattern is continued up to the Loya Jirga (Grand Council), headed by the Shah (previously Amir) or King, who is seen as first among equals and theoretically consults with prominent members of this democratic 'aristocracy'. Members of the Duranis (a Pashtun family) reigned as monarchs for two centuries (see figure 1) and this convention held until the King was deposed in 1973. In introducing the 1964 Constitution, Zaher Shah sought to separate the monarchy from government (specifically barring members of the royal family from party politics and certain high positions), and took great pains to ensure a gradual, painless transition, retaining continuity between the old and new constitutions. The period between 1964 and 1973 was characterised by the growth of welfare, education and increasing prosperity, a progress towards democracy which ended when Zaher Shah's vengeful cousin, who had previously resigned as Prime Minister after being snubbed, staged a coup and established a single-party Republic with himself as President. Five years later (April 1978), Daoud was killed in the 'Saur' Communist revolution, and Afghanistan sank into a civil war which continues to this day.
           /       \
     Sadozais    Mohammadzais
                     Yahya Kheyl
Figure 1 - This diagram traces the groups from which Amirs and Shahs have traditionally been drawn. Nadir Shah and Zaher Shah were of the Yahya 'Kheyl' (smaller family), which is recognised in both 1931 and 1964 Constitutions as the Royal Line.
A family tree for the Afghan royal family is available in PDF format at Lemar Aftaab: Click Here
Data from Harvey H Smith et al (editors), Area Handbook for Afghanistan, Fourth Edition, The American University, Washington DC, 1973, pages 187, 189.
Mohammed Zaher Shah is the only individual on the planet today to enjoy legitimacy across traditional demographic barriers in Afghanistan. All other leaders and factions have a recent record of treachery and brutality (at least by men under their command), and almost all warlords and parties are considered by some other group to be the puppets of a foreign power. The Taliban's opponents (and some of their supporters) are suspicious of the Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis by whom the Taliban are backed. In collaborating with the Americans, the Northern Alliance's legitimacy is also undermined in the eyes of many recently 'liberated' southern Pashtuns. Russia and Iran have both lent financial and/or military support to their respective allies in the Northern Alliance. A Western-style secular democratic Constitution imposed from above by a United Nations 'occupying force' would have zero probability of success.
Why did people accept the Taliban in the first place? Did they want to be flogged or executed for crimes which would have been minor or non-existent under the monarchy? Of course not. The near-universal view is that the Taliban promised peace, law and order, and stability. They were able to deliver law and order and stability, and by pushing back all other groups, they were increasingly able to deliver peace. The Taliban can clearly no longer make the same promises, and are finished as a major political force - although they will continue to wage guerrilla warfare for years to come. If the King were returned as Head of State by the Loya Jirga, he would be welcomed emphatically by the people. As a secular, Constitutional Monarch, Zaher Shah would neutralise religious fault lines in Afghan society. As for the pessimistic claim that his Pushtun lineage would make him unpopular with ethnic minorities, it should be recalled that even before the 1964 Constitution, Tajiks were represented in the King's Government.4 Uzbek General Rashid Dostum, the leading military figure since Mosud's death, was interviewed by Der Spiegel recently.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's appropriate for Ex-King Zahir Shah to return to Kabul?
Dostam: That would not be bad - so long as that's what the people really want.5

Afghanistan's very young demographic profile means that while many Afghan's have no recollection of life under Zaher Shah, they have also no memory of peace, which they are aware coincided with the King's presence.
4 Area Handbook for Afghanistan, page 188.
5 Christian Neef, Die Erde hat Gebrannt in Der Spiegel, Nr 42, 15th October 2001, page 162.
Original Text:
SPIEGEL: Halten Sie es für richtig, dass Ex-König Zahir Schah nach Kabul zurückkehrt?
Dostum: Das wäre nicht schlecht - sofern das Volk es wirklich will.
It's true that Russia and Iran both oppose a restoration, and journalists seem unsure how to treat the issue, carefully balancing for and against arguments. It is important to examine the motivations of these foreign powers. Iran has obvious reasons to oppose a restoration, facing growing popular unrest fuelled by agitation by the Shah's son and heir to the throne Reza Pehlavi II. For Afghanistan's Islamic regime to be replaced by a secular, modernising monarch sounds too much like the Iranian Government's worst nightmare with the names changed around. Russia interferes in the affairs of her neighbours as a matter of course, oscillating between destabilisation verging on subversion and patronising friendship. Russia's foremost security risks at present are around the Caspian Sea, in Central Asia and the Caucusus, therefore a weak Afghanistan looking to Russia for support is preferable to a strong, stable and independent Afghanistan to which Russia's own Central Asian States can turn. It must be remembered that Afghanistan's neighbours have been sponsoring various factions in Afghanistan for the best part of a decade, and they are now insisting on various mutually exclusive vetos in relation to the future Government. Russia and Iran predictably insist that the Taliban have no role in the Government (despite the fact that General Dostum, who has been fighting against the Taliban since 1994, approves of Taliban involvement in a future government, saying "Not all Taliban are bad people.")6 Meanwhile, the Pakistanis won't hear of the Northern Alliance resuming Government in Kabul, prefering a Government led by non-Taliban Pushtun leaders (which are pretty thin on the ground at the moment). 6 Christian Neef, op cit.
It is important that the West, particularly America, pursue the path of greatest stability. None of the demands made by Afghanistan's neighbours are realistic, and in any case the matter should be left to Afghanistan's Loya Jirga. A Constitution modelled on the 1964 Constitution would finally put Afghanistan on the right track again. It is the opinion of this commentator that an interim 'figurehead' role for the King is insufficient, as any Government still faces the risk of factions resorting to civil war as occurred under the Rabani Government. It is important that serious deadlocks can be broken by the King, to whom all armed forces should owe primary allegiance. Banditry is already rife, with several journalists killed in recent days, and the Northern Alliance is already showing its faultlines as the threat of the Taliban subsides.
It is important to remember that the battle against terrorism requires uniform global legislative and policing efforts. That has been recognised by Russia, Britain and America, and now needs to be put in practice, especially in Afghanistan. The most important place to apply this policy would surely be Afghanistan - America should concentrate on facilitating the establishment of a strong, stable, legitimate Government in Afghanistan as soon as possible - this is a long term goal at least as important as the short term goal of hunting down bin Laden and his men. What happens when the Taliban fighters who defected when the chips were down defect back to dissident warlords in the mould of Hikmatyar? (And there will be more like him.)
Many in America are reluctant to get involved in the 'domestic politics' of countries such as Afghanistan, and certainly bluntly manipulating the process would create resentment. However, it is obvious America has completely changed the political landscape in Afghanistan. Destroying a country's infrastructure, or altering the military balance, then leaving the populace to sort the problems out amongst themselves, is also likely to breed resentment, and result in worse conditions than what the Americans intended to remedy.
A strong
a strong
a safe world.
Part of the reason Afghanistan has been such a centre for drug trafficking and crime is its geographical position - mountainous and thus unconquerable and bordered by the Russian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Chinese Empire and the Subcontinent. As a mountainous country it is also a food deficit region, and therefore must find funds from either licit or illicit trade if it is to survive. However, the country is also rich in untapped resources including precious metals and natural gas, and a potential nexus for world trade, facts which could be turned to Afghanistan's advantage were it not for the war. Part of the reason Pakistan initially supported the Taliban was to clear the way for international trade along the Herat-Kandahar highway. In particular, a proposal to develop a gas pipeline linking Pakistan to Turkmenistan through southwest Afghanistan drew interest from a consortium assembled by American company UNACOL, and including Saudi Arabia's Delta and Russia's politically influential Gazprom among others.7 Afghanistan can't build a long term future without increases in prosperity, which are acheivable if only Afghanistan can maintain the sort of stability which will attract foreign investment. Some are sceptical that Zaher Shah would bring much business to Afghanistan. But on reflection, if you were a businessman investing in a country, who would you prefer to see at the pinnacle of the Government: a grab-bag of mutually suspicious warlords who have spent the past quarter century huddling in bunkers and betraying each other, or a cultured Monarch who has spent the past quarter century in Rome, watching and waiting, and who has experience running a progressive, growing Afghanistan? 7 Ralph H Magnus, Afghanistan in 1997: The War Moves North in Asian Survey, Volume XXXVIII, No. 2, February 1998, pages 113-114.

Radio Afghanistan poll on Afghanistan's future government (As at 2/12/01):


President Rabbani3%38
Northern Alliance2%23
King Zahir Shah9%94
Zahir Shah, Northern Alliance and Taliban13%133
King Zahir Shah and Northern Alliance71%720

Total for a role for the King93%947
Total for a Republic5%61

Total votes1008

See current results


HM Mohammed Zaher Shah, King of Afghanistan.

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